This was, as you might expect, a difficult list to compile. DS9 is my favorite Trek series (I may have mentioned that once or twice on the show), and with 170+ episodes to choose from, producing a list of ten exemplary episodes was nigh impossible. Before I even began, I allowed myself to count multi-part episodes as a single entry (meaning that, for instance, the 9-part finale would count as one). Even then, by round three of cuts, what I thought was an extremely conservative list was still clocking in at 23. I did my best to whittle things down to the very best of the best, but then the idea of having to arrange that list in order from least-great to most-great almost made me cry. So I’m just presenting them here in production order. I suspect you’ll manage. I always said you were strong.
DS9 kicked off with a pretty solid pilot, followed by several solidly above-average episodes in its first season — episodes that I would say were every bit as good as anything TNG was putting out at that point. But “Duet” was the first truly great DS9 episode, illustrating what made the show unique: indepth character pieces that weren’t afraid to go dark or reveal serious flaws in a main cast member.
Improbable Cause/The Die is Cast
There are a lot of different points at which you could say “the Dominion war starts here in earnest,” but this one — which starts with a relatively small mystery involving Garak and escalates to a glorious Cardassian/Romulan clusterfuck in the Gamma Quadrant — covers an awful lot of ground in 90 minutes.
It’s no secret we tended to favor DS9’s big sweeping epic stuff (see: most of the rest of this list), but this episode, where Ben and Jake reconstruct an old Bajoran light sail ship, is nearly flawless. There’s no deadly danger to speak of, and hardly even any stakes at all. And yet… Avery Brooks’ enthusiasm and the best father/son relationship in Star Trek gets you heavily invested in what’s going on.
By this point, we all knew war with the Dominion was inevitable. But it was here we realized that this didn’t just mean space battles or the occasional planetbound phaser fight. The Founders were, after all, shapeshifters. Which meant that they could be hiding anywhere, as anyone. And probably already were. This episode really capitalizes on that premise, and gives us a tight, claustrophobic DS9 version of Alien.
Remember earlier, when I called Ben and Jake the best father/son relationship in Star Trek? I mean, it’s not like they had a ton of competition — Spock and Sarek? Not so much. Anyone on the Enterprise-D? Probably not. Nevertheless, this episode manages to build on everything we’d seen in the previous three seasons, somehow seamlessly integrating Tony Todd as an older Jake who saw his father die and completely lost his way. Possibly the only “time travel undoes the plot” story in all of Trek that I not only didn’t hate, but really loved.
More of that great changeling paranoia stuff, as we pay our first extended visit to contemporary earth for the first time in… ever. DS9’s writers did some great work poking holes in Gene’s Ideal Future without ever actually contradicting its central tenets. Not to mention eerily presaging a lot of Patriot Act mumbo-jumbo that hadn’t even happened yet.
Trials and Tribble-ations
I mean. Duh.
A Time to Stand/Rocks and Shoals/Sons and Daughters/Behind the Lines/Favor the Bold/Sacrifice of Angels
Season 6’s premiere, when you realized that our heroes weren’t just going to retake the station in a single episode and return everything back to normal, was highly unusual for syndicated television in 1997. And it was completely alien for Star Trek — prior to this point, 2-parters were about as serialized as things got. (Okay, DS9 did a 3-part premiere for season 2. But apart from that, Mr. Well Actually.) There’s so much good stuff in this block of episodes, I don’t even know where to begin. When I think of DS9, this is pretty much the first storyline that jumps into my brain. Well, this one and that 2-parter that we’re not talking about anymore. You know the one I mean.
Far Beyond the Stars
Another episode that, on paper, I really should not have enjoyed. Oh, we’re going back in time for no very good reason and nobody is playing themselves and we’re dealing with a serious social issue? Wonderful! Except… it kind of is. Not only does the episode stand as solid and sometimes genuinely shocking commentary on issues that sadly apparently still need to be addressed, it also pays homage to the early days of pulp sci-fi that led to Trek’s creation in the first place. And Avery Brooks, man. Have I mentioned how good that guy is? Seriously. He’ll break your goddamned heart.
In the Pale Moonlight
As I mentioned on the podcast, this episode works for one simple reason: they took the two best characters on the show (Sisko and Garak) and just let them both go completely nuts for 47 minutes. It’s a tight script with twists that I honestly didn’t see coming the first time around, with huge stakes both in terms of the series’ running plotlines and the central protagonist’s moral core. Not so much Garak’s, because I don’t think he has one of those.